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  • The Gift of Second Chances
    Find out why I'm cutting Italy some slack as its holiday gift.
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    Italy, especially the island of Ischia, which is off the coast of Naples and is the home of my ancestors, was once my happy place. I loved everything about it – the history, the sport (calcio), the people, the beauty. I socked away money to plan trips and came up with excuses to visit my relatives in the homeland. I couldn't understand why my grandparents on both sides (and my father, who was born in Ischia) would ever decide to leave. My grandfather Rocco told me he only ever returned to the island to see his mother and relatives, otherwise he would have never looked back. I was baffled.

    Then, I met the man, who would become my husband in Ischia. He is a native, and he had all the charm of an Italian man. Life was a dream. But just when I should have fallen more in love with the place – home of my beloved – I started to hate it. Hate is actually not enough. I began to loathe it. The more time I spent in Italy to be near my love the more I started to notice the country's flaws.

    Grandpa told me that on a small island like Ischia everyone talked about everyone. You had no privacy and jealous folk would even make up stories or jump to conclusions. I thought he was completely pazzo. Then, I started to see with my own eyes what he tried to tell me. A friend of mine had coffee with a classmate of the opposite sex, and people started to tell me she was cheating on her boyfriend with him. Another walked into a local bar and shook hands with the owner, and they were in cahoots to overthrow one of its competitor pubs. Some went to the trouble of writing anonymous letters accusing people of cheating on their spouses. It was like something out of a trashy novel and not real life. Some of these stories would turn out to be true and others were flat out lies. All of it was immature nonsense that just hurt people and did nothing to better anyone. It also revealed the ignorance of people, some of whom never got off the island. And it made me sad.

    Still, I had people I loved on the island, including the man who would become my husband. I had family and a few good friends. I could ignore the high school-level drama. When the gossip hit home (was about my people or me), it was harder. But I was above this. And I had a whole other life in America to distract me, not to mention my work as a journalist.

    Then, I started to feel the ramifications of the rest of the culture. When I was traveling to Italy as a tourist, I found the idea of a siesta relaxing and civilized. Why not eat a big lunch, take off a few hours in the afternoon for a nap, and hang out with the family? Well, when I started working for American editors from Italy and keeping American hours (which meant I worked in the afternoon and evening just as the siesta was getting started), I started to realize how ridiculous this lifestyle is.

    The kids would come home from school and they'd all rush onto Facebook, and you couldn't open an Internet page. Your computer would require a new adapter, and you'd have to wait until after 5 p.m. to get it. Supermarkets were closed, so forget about picking up anything for dinner until that hour, too. Don't get me started on dinner. We wouldn't eat until 9 or 10 o'clock at night because that's when everyone would get home from the second shift of work. And it was pretty obvious how this siesta lifestyle was getting in the way of the economy. (Anyone keeping tabs of the financial crisis in Europe knows that it still is.)

    Visiting my husband in the summer had been a joy. Ischia is a tourist's haven with one beach after another and restaurants that serve delicious, authentic southern Italian fare. When we weren't working, we would play tourists and lounge on the beach, eat until our stomachs were going to explode, and walk it off window shopping in the Porto, Ischia's main hub. When I started spending time in Ischia during the winter, I became utterly depressed. The whole place shuts down. I'm here right now, and it's Nov. 3 and the natives are all fleeing. They collect their unemployment for the six months that the island is shut down and head for their own vacations, preferably in warm climates. Or they stay home and do nothing, literally nothing. And there's nothing for you to do either. Stores close. Restaurants close. It's too cold for the beach. Man, is it cold.

    The Ischitani will tell you that New York and New Jersey have snow, so they're colder. But they're wrong. They haven't been to New York. We have homes that are heated 24/7. And New York's cold air is dry. Theirs is humid. You can pile on sweaters, wool hats, socks, fur slippers and down comforters and you'll still feel bone cold in the center of your chest. I had experienced this as a kid, too, because my father often brought us to Italy in the winter when he was off work as a landscaper. But this was no longer limited to a couple of weeks. This was now my life.

    After I turned 30, staying up all hours of the night in Italy to work also started to get on my nerves. I had no siesta. I was waking up early in the morning to take advantage of the time when the Internet worked best and going to bed late at night after attending online meetings, interviewing sources for stories I was writing, and answering my editor's questions. I was cold and exhausted. Italy was my decidedly unhappy place.

    Once I had a child, I realized how little hope there would be for his future if we were to stay in Italy permanently. America has its own flaws, some of which are growing greater by the minute. But American kids can still dream. They dream of being doctors, lawyers, firemen, president of the United States. In Ischia, they can only consider being doormen or bartenders or beach bums. The rest of the country doesn't offer much more nowadays. Most of all, for my son, Italy won't give him a happy mamma. That can make all the difference, wherever you are.

    Still, in the spirit of the holiday season and because I'm nearing the end of a nearly nine-month stint in Italy, I'm willing to give the country a second chance. I never want to live in the Boot, nor do I want to ever stay here for so long again. But I'm willing to look passed its flaws and see it for the gem it is. The history, the sport, the beauty is all still here. I can still lounge on the beach in the summer with my husband and son. The food is incredible; seriously, you can't have a bad meal here, and I could write sonnets about the tomatoes alone. Of course, it's the home of my beloved. My son carries its passport, too. Heck, I wouldn't even have my son, for whom I'm eternally grateful, if it wasn't for Ischia luring me to it. And we all have its blood coursing through our veins. So, Ischia, Italy, I'll marry you again. And again. And again, flaws and all.

    Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press Travel, 2012) and you can learn about both her homes on the Two Worlds Web site.


    Article Published 10/20/13

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